Orange County's First Ever Needle Exchange Is an Overdue Victory for Public Health

Feb 15 2016

Orange County’s First Ever Needle Exchange Is an Overdue Victory for Public Health

“I vividly remember the day this young guy came up to my car and asked me for some of my old points,” says a resident of Santa Ana in Orange County, California, recalling a recent experience of scoring there.

It’s a stark illustration of why it is so vital that Santa Ana will soon be home to the first ever sterile syringe exchange program in this notoriously conservative county, after the California Department of Health finally gave its approval late last week.

Needle exchange programs have long been associated with decreases in drug use and injection frequency, as well as reductions in transmissions of HIV, hepatitis B and C, and significant reductions in the incidence of accidental needle piercing. Accordingly, such programs are deemed effective by the World Health Organization, the Surgeon General’s Office and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The breakthrough in Orange County—leading to the establishment of the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP)—is the result of over a year of work by a dedicated team of volunteer medical students and local residents. It comes at time when the problem of increased opioid use has inundated media and earned public outcry, resulted in senate hearings, town hall meetings, parent advocacy groups and changes in both state and federal legislation. Yet despite this increased national concern, gaining support in a county that has long opposed harm reduction efforts was no easy feat.

“Barriers to establishing needle exchange programs must come down,” says  Kyle Barbour, a leading local advocate and one of the program’s founders. His team endured 17 months of arrest threats, repeated demands, excessive paperwork and unnecessary fundraising requirements in order to get OCNEP launched. “This meant 17 months of new HIV cases; 17 months of unnecessary overdoses; 17 months of Orange County failing its most vulnerable citizens,” he points out.

Happily, the OCNEP will open its doors on Saturday, February 20. Questions? Contact OCNEP.

Chelsea Carmona is a writer and activist living in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter: @CarmonaChelsea